A “financial safety” school is a college that you know your family can afford. It is always a good idea to have your student put at least one of these on his or her college list.

I am going to go through why you should include a financial safety school, how to determine what qualifies as a financial safety school for your family, and how your student can find good financial safety schools.

Why Include a Financial Safety School?

Simple answer – in case your student’s other top schools are not affordable.

The families who should include a financial safety school include any of the following:

  • Your student is looking at very competitive schools that are not generous with financial aid and you can’t afford the full sticker price.
  • You have run the Net Price Calculators on MyCAP and it doesn’t look likely that you will qualify for any, or much, aid.
  • You don’t have unlimited funds saved for your kid’s college education.
  • Your student is trying for large merit scholarships that are awarded to only a small number of students, so your student may or may not receive these.
  • You are counting on schools coming through with more merit aid or need-based aid than what the net price calculators are indicating.
  • You can only afford a school if you get exactly what is showing for aid on the net price calculator (or more.)
  • You are unsure of your future ability to afford a school (maybe because you will have more than one student in college at some point.)

What Qualifies As a Financial Safety School for Your Family?

Simple answer – one you can afford without taking out high-interest loans.

More complicated answer – make sure you have calculated out how much you can afford each year.

Ask yourself the following:

  • What does my student have in college savings? Divide this out over 4 years to get an approximate amount you can use per year.
  • What can my student earn each summer to contribute toward the next year’s college bill?
  • What can we contribute through monthly cash flow?
  • Are there other relatives, like grandparents, who will kick in a specific amount each year?

Add all of these up to come up with a yearly total you expect to be able to contribute.

On top of this, you have 3 possibilities:

  • Merit Aid (including institutional merit scholarships directly from the colleges and private scholarships)
  • Need-based “Free” Aid – this would include need-based scholarships and grants
  • Loans


I am not a fan of loans, but many families cannot cover the cost of college without them.

If you are ok with the idea of loans, start with Federal Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans because these tend to have the lowest interest rates and best payment terms. You can find out more about these here.

Make sure you know the differences between subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Not everyone will qualify for subsidized loans, but everyone can get unsubsidized loans as long as they fill out the FAFSA.

Use Net Price Calculators, or your free MyCAP account, to estimate what your student may receive from a school from all 3 categories (merit aid, free need-based aid and loans).

Keep in mind that Net Price Calculators only give an estimate and there is no guarantee that your student will actually receive that amount. It might be lower or it might be higher.

A financial safety school will be one that you are sure you can afford – you don’t have to wait and see what the school offers in aid.

How Can Your Student Find Good Financial Safety Schools?

Simple Answer – Find the schools with the lowest guaranteed price.

This doesn’t automatically mean the lowest sticker price. The key here is that you are looking for a “guaranteed” price, not a “wait and see what we offer you” price.

Here are some great options for financial safety schools:

  • In-State Public Colleges – especially the non-flagship campuses that tend to be lower in price
  • Out-of-State Public Colleges That Have Reciprocity Agreements with Your State – this will significantly decrease the price of out-of-state tuition
  • Colleges with guaranteed merit scholarships – these are usually based on a GPA and/or ACT/SAT score combination and usually have combinations and amounts listed out on the college’s website. The best deals are colleges offering guaranteed full tuition and full ride scholarships. You can find over 151 of these on College Aid Pro’s Full Scholarship List.

Most students will apply to a handful of schools where you will be anxious to see what the bottom line price will be.

Having at least one financial safety school in the mix, that your student would be happy at, will help cut down on the nervousness of waiting for financial aid awards.

At least you will know that there is a good option available if all the schools don’t come through with the aid you would like to see!